USA/CANADIAN HISTORY YOU MAY NOT KNOW
LEADING UP TO THE AMERICAN NATIONAL ANTHEM
From the two volume set by the late Pierre Berton on the war of
1812-14 between the USA and Canada.
THE BATTLE OF LAKE CHAMPLAIN September, 1814
With thousands of Wellington's veterans shipped across the
Atlantic to reinforce his thin army, Sir George Prevost can at
last go on the offensive. He intends to march his troops - eleven
thousand strong - down the Richelieu-Champlain corridor and take
the war into New York State. To succeed he must seize Plattsburgh
on Lake Champlain and destroy the newly built American fleet
anchored in Plattsburgh Bay. All year, the two opposing navies on
the lake have been engaged in a shipbuilding contest. As the
British flotilla nears completion and Prevost's army marches
south, the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, awaits the
ABOARD U.S. SARATOGA, Plattsburgh Bay, New York, September 4,
Sunday dinner aboard the flagship of Commodore Thomas
Macdonough, commander of the American fleet on Lake Champlain.
The Commodore's gig arrives bringing a guest, a Yale student,
John H. Dulles of Philadelphia. As the sun approaches the
meridian, a predinner service is held on deck, and young Dulles
notes that the three hundred members of the naval congregation
are more than usually devout. He remarks on this to the
Commodore, who replies, drily, "You must not be deceived by an
inference that it is from pious feelings altogether." He smiles
and adds, "There are other considerations controlling their
conduct." There are indeed. Thomas Macdonough is totally in
control of his fleet. Dulles, chatting with some junior officers,
is "struck with the palpable evidence of the one pervading spirit
of a master mind."
In spite of the stalemate on the Niagara peninsula, the war
is far from over. On this Sunday afternoon, as Gordon Drummond
continues to lob cannonballs at Fort Erie and the five Americans
at Ghent begin, at last, to fence with their British
counterparts, Sir George Prevost's vast army is marching down the
western shore of Lake Champlain, virtually unopposed. A few miles
to the north, a new British fleet is nearing completion. But here
on Thomas Macdonough's flagship, all is calm.
In his cabin, Macdonough quietly discusses the possibilities
of the coming action. If the British destroy his fleet, he
explains, Sir George Prevost can march his army, unobstructed, to
the capital at Albany - even on to New York City, there to
dictate an ignominious peace. The next few days will be decisive.
Dulles is impressed by Macdonough, who speaks "with the singular
simplicity and with the dignity of a Christian gentleman." The
Commodore looks younger than his thirty-one years. He has a
light, agile frame and a bony face - all nose and jaw. His faith
in a living God is unbounded. To Dulles he quotes from the
epistle of St. James with its naval illustrations:
"He that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the
wind," and "Behold the ships, though so great, are turned about
with a very small helm."
The chaplain offers a blessing before the midday meal.
Halfway through a message arrives, which the Commodore relays to
"Gentlemen... I am just informed by the commander of the army
that the signs of advance by the British forces will be signalled
by two guns, and you will act accordingly."
He leaves the table and the conversation livens. One of the
juniors makes so bold as to illustrate a remark with an oath,
whereupon another turns to him and declares:
"Sir, I am astonished at your using such language. You know you
would not do it if the Commodore was present."
Dead silence as the rebuke sinks in. What a curious company
is this! Hardly the blasphemous and salty fraternity of song and
story. But then, no one would describe Thomas Macdonough as
salty, though he has spent half his life in the navy. He is a
devout Episcopalian, his religion so much a part of him that it
cannot be separated from the rest of his personality. He does not
flaunt his faith, for he has learned in fifteen years of naval
service to keep himself under tight control, to curb a tendency
toward impetuosity - even rashness. He is known as an amiable,
even placid officer, not one to betray emotion. And he is a
survivor. One of Stephen Decatur's favourite midshipmen, he saw
active service in the Mediterranean. He is brave and he is tough.
Once, in hand-to-hand fighting on a Tripolitan gunboat when his
cutlass broke, Macdonough wrested a pistol from his nearest
assailant and shot him dead. Later he survived an epidemic of
yellow fever that killed all but three of his shipmates. Two
years of service on Lake Champlain, however, have worn him down,
leaving him prey to the tuberculosis that will eventually kill
As on Erie and Ontario, the British and Americans on Lake
Champlain have been engaged in a shipbuilding race. It has not
been easy for Macdonough, who has had to compete with Chauncey
for men and supplies. Yet, with the help of Noah Brown, the New
York shipbuilding genius who worked on Perry's fleet, he has
outdone Perry. In the spring, Brown launched the twenty-six-gun
Saratoga, larger than any of Erie's vessels. Then, when
Macdonough discovered that the British were building an even
larger vessel, Confiance, he undertook to construct a second, the
twenty-gun Eagle, launched in a record seventeen days after the
keel was laid. Now he has outstripped the British, for Eagle has
joined his squadron while the British flagship has yet to be
The creation of Macdonough's fleet has been a masterpiece of
organization and ingenuity. One vessel, the seventeen-gun
Ticonderoga, is a former steamer, transformed by Brown into a
Guns, cannon, shot, cables, and cordage have been hauled
hundreds of miles to the shipyards at Otter Creek. Here, in the
saw pits, green timber has been turned into planking while local
blacksmiths have hammered out nails, bolts, fastenings, wire.
Besides his two large vessels and Ticonderoga, Macdonough has
three smaller sloops, six two-gun galleys, each manned by forty
oarsmen, and four smaller galleys -sixteen vessels in all.
Now, with Prevost's army sweeping everything before it,
Macdonough waits for the British fleet. He knows he cannot beat
it in the open water, where the British long guns can savage his
vessels at a comfortable distance. He must force them to come to
him - to do battle within the confines of Plattsburgh Bay, where
his powerful short-range carronades may hammer them to matchwood.
Will Downie, the British commander, hold his fleet outside the
bay? Macdonough thinks not: at this season the possibility of a
destructive gale is too great. But once they enter the bay,
Macdonough can fight at a site of his own choosing.
The long narrow lake runs north and south, with the
prevailing winds blowing from the north. Macdonough expects the
British fleet will sweep up the lake toward its objective with
the north wind behind it. Once the ships round Cumberland Head,
however, they must turn into the wind in order to manoeuvre into
the bay. They may, of course, drive directly across the mouth of
the bay, but that is unlikely, for it would place them within
range of the shore batteries on the far side.
With this in mind, Macdonough carefully places his fleet in
a chain across the bay, stretching from the shallows near Crab
Island on his right to Cumberland Head on his left. The chain
runs almost north and south; that will force the British to
attack bows on, a position that will allow Macdonough to rake
their vessels from bow to stern. Nor can the British stand off
out of range and batter the Americans with their long guns.
Macdonough has so chosen his position in the cramped bay that
there is not enough room.
He intends to fight at anchor, forcing the British to come
to him, his vessels little more than floating batteries. It can
be dangerous. He must be aware that Nelson destroyed two fleets
at anchor - the French on the Nile, the Danes at Copenhagen. But
Nelson had the wind behind him. By hitting the enemy line on the
windward he was able to bear down on the opposing fleet and roll
it up, ship by ship. Downie, the British commodore, cannot
duplicate Nelson's feat from the leeward; the geography of
Plattsburgh Bay makes that impossible. It is hard enough with
lake vessels of shallow drafts and flat bottoms to beat up,
close-hauled, against the wind.
Macdonough plans one further precaution. He must be able to
manoeuvre quickly at anchor, without putting on sail. To do that,
he equips his flagship, Saratoga, with a series of anchors and
cables that will allow him to twist it about in any direction -
through an arc of i 8o degrees if necessary -in order to bring
his guns to bear on targets of opportunity.
He cannot know what the British will do. He can only make an
educated guess, based on his knowledge of the winds, the
geography of the lake, his own capabilities, and the enemy's
The British are determined to seize Plattsburgh and destroy
its defenders. To accomplish that and to continue on through the
state, they must have naval support. That they cannot have
without a naval victory. For once, the approaching winter is to
the Americans' advantage. With the season far advanced,
Macdonough is betting that Prevost will not hazard a blockade but
will opt immediately for a combined attack by Downie's squadron
and his formidable army. If he does, and if the God in whom the
Commodore so devoutly believes gives him favourable winds,
Macdonough is calmly confident of victory.
PLATTSBURGH, NEW YORK, September 7, 1814
Sir George Prevost's mighty army-the greatest yet assembled
on the border-pours into Plattsburgh's outskirts in two dense
columns, brushing aside the weak American defenders like
These are Wellington's veterans. With Napoleon confined to
Elba and the conflict in Europe at an end, sixteen thousand were
brought across the Atlantic to finish the war in North America.
Prevost has at least eleven thousand on this march through upper
New York State. The logistics are awesome. To maintain its new
army in Canada, Britain must ship daily supplies weighing
forty-five tons across the ocean - a drain upon the British
treasury which English property owners, facing new taxes, are
beginning to deplore.
At eight in the morning, Major John E. Wool attempts to stem
the scarlet tide. He has no chance. The heavy British column
presses forward at a steady 108 paces to the minute, completely
filling the roadway and routing the militia. An artillery captain
tries to support Wool. His cannonballs tear heavy lanes through
the British ranks, but the disciplined veterans march inexorably
on, filling the gaps as they go. They disdain to deploy into
line. Instead, as the bugles sound, the flanking companies toss
aside their knapsacks, rush forward at a smart double, and
disperse the fleeing Americans at bayonet point even as the main
body marches on.
Prevost's brigades are under the direct control of
Major-General De Rottenburg, who commands three battle-wise
major-generals from Wellington's army - Manley Power, Thomas
Makdougall Brisbane, and Frederick Philipse Robinson. They have
been hand picked by the Iron Duke himself; he considers them the
best he has. Not surprisingly, all three are sceptical of the
colonial high command. Neither Prevost, De Rottenburg, nor the
Adjutant-General, Colonel Baynes, now promoted to major-general,
have much battle experience.
As the troops march into Plattsburgh against light
resistance, Robinson has further cause to question Prevost's
capabilities. He has already realized that the army is moving on
its objective without any carefully thought-out plan. Now, as he
approaches the Saranac River, the major obstacle between the
American redoubts and the advancing British, his doubts are
Prevost proposes an immediate attack. Is Robinson prepared
to launch his demi-brigade in an assault on the heights across
the river? Robinson is always ready, but he has some questions:
Is the river fordable and, if so, where? What is the ground like
on the other side? How far will the men have to march to reach
the American redoubts? Are experienced guides available?
To his dismay, he is told that no one has the answers to any of
Robinson's men have been on the march since five in the
morning. It is now three o'clock. He suggests to Prevost that the
staff do its best to get all possible information and if it
cannot be procured before dark, to defer the attack until
daybreak. Guides, he says, are essential; they must be obtained
at any price.
Undoubtedly his mind goes back to Wellington's crossing of
the Bidassoa between Spain and France. There the Duke employed
men disguised as fishermen to sound out the fords and the ground
and to guide the attacking columns. But Prevost is no Wellington.
It seems to Robinson that the high command is convinced that it
is impossible to get reliable information and that it is simply
wasting good money to try. Prevost is a penny-pincher; he has a
secret service fund but withholds it from his generals.
It is clear now that no attempt will be made on the American
redoubts until the following day. As Prevost camps his army on a
ridge north of Plattsburgh, Robinson, the old campaigner, makes a
personal reconnaissance of the village below: the scattered
houses, perhaps eighty in number, four hotels, a few shops and
public buildings; the river, spanned by two bridges, the planking
of each removed by the retreating Americans; on the heights on
the south side, three redoubts, two blockhouses, and, near the
lake, a battery of big guns. He notes that the redoubts are not
yet finished and that the guns are en barbette -not mounted. They
can, he believes, easily be silenced during an assault.
He is an old hand at this, for he has been a soldier since the
age of thirteen in Virginia, when he was commissioned an ensign
at the outbreak of the American Revolution. At fifteen, he took a
company into action at Horseneck. Since then his has been a life
of action. Wounded three times - once fighting in America, twice
in the Peninsular campaign - he is known as an officer of high
and daring spirit, chosen to lead the advance in the successful
assault on San Sebastian, mentioned several times in dispatches,
noted for taking a village against a heavy artillery barrage
without firing a shot. His lineage is distinguished, his family
tree studded with clerics, jurists, and generals. John Beverley
Robinson is his first cousin.
Robinson has urged that his assault force be called out and
in position by first light, but dawn comes and no orders reach
him. Sir George Prevost is having second thoughts.
Prevost is not Robinson's kind of general. The qualities
that have made him a good administrator in the defence of
Canada-prudence, conciliation, sober second thoughts, a tendency
to delay -now work against him. He is essentially a diplomat;
circumspection is his hallmark. He prefers to slide around a
problem rather than meet it head on. He cannot bring himself even
to write a harsh letter. His reproofs to subordinates are so
delicately phrased that they seem almost like praise.
At forty-seven, he is in the prime of his career, his body
supple, his face not unhandsome, though his official portrait
cannot disguise the worried, hesitant cast of his eyes. These
have not been easy years for George Prevost. His conciliation of
the French Canadians, however admirable, has made him unpopular
with the Anglophone elite in Quebec, who feel he is coddling a
defeated race. His strategy, dictated by Great Britain, has been
to remain strictly on the defensive, husbanding his inadequate
forces. For more than two years his instincts have been to hold
fast, to let the enemy come to him, to seek delay by armistice,
to avoid costly mistakes. In this he has been spectacularly
successful. Except for two small enclaves at Amherstburg, and
Fort Erie (the latter soon to be abandoned) and some foraging
parties trampling their way up and down the Thames Valley, the
Americans have failed to gain a foothold in Canada. The conquest
of British North America is no closer to reality than it was in
the summer of 1812. For this, Prevost can take much credit.
Now, however, events have taken an about-turn. For the first
time, the Americans are outnumbered-and by the best troops in the
world. An entire British division has penetrated deep into enemy
territory. If Prevost is to succeed he must accommodate himself
to a changed set of circumstances, put aside old habits, abandon
the strategy of the previous twenty-seven months.
He cannot do it, cannot bring himself to launch an assault
even against the weakly held entrenchments before him. The best
American troops, four thousand in number, have already left to
support Jacob Brown on the Niagara frontier-an incomprehensible
decision by John Armstrong that galled their leader, Major-
General Izard - but Prevost still hesitates. He remembers the
three previous assaults on entrenched positions at Fort Meigs,
Fort Stephenson, and Fort Erie, all abortive. The Americans, it
seems, fight like demons behind their ditches and their abatis.
He cannot make up his mind. Robinson, fretting in his
headquarters, receives an order to attend a meeting at six
o'clock on the morning of the seventh. Before he can attend, it
is countermanded. At eight, Sir George sends for him alone. He
has decided that he cannot move on the Plattsburgh redoubts
without the support of the fleet. It is just as well, for
Robinson discovers, to his dismay, that in the midst of all this
soul searching no one has thought to mount the British artillery
to support the proposed assault.
At this point, a change comes over Sir George Prevost. In
his impatience to bring the fleet down the lake at once, the
sedulous diplomat becomes alarmingly shrill. Testy letters urging
Captain Downie to get moving travel north by express rider.
Prevost, who has been irritated by Sir James Yeo's vacillations,
no doubt believes that the navy on Lake Champlain is dawdling.
But Downie cannot move until his biggest ship, Confiance, is
fitted; nor can he be blamed, since he has been in command for
only three days. Yet Prevost knows he must attack soon. The fall
season is far advanced. The maples that arch over the narrow
roads are beginning to turn. Frost is in the air. The weather,
which has halted every American advance into Canada, will soon be
The notes to Downie grow more petulant, nettling the naval
commander, forcing him to move before he is ready, goading him to
fight on the enemy's terms and on the enemy's site, with a ship
scarcely fitted and a crew yet untried.
MILTON, VERMONT, September 7, 1814
In spite of his governor's opposition to the war, Jonathan
Blaisdell, a Milton house builder, has decided to answer the call
of his country and cross the lake to Plattsburgh to help repulse
the invading British.
To be continued